Drawing predominantly on texts of 19th and early 20th century thinkers, Paul Mendes-Flohr's Cultural Disjunctions: Post-Traditional Jewish Identities is a thin volume of six essays theorizing the nature of and solutions to the problems of post-traditional Jewish identity. Since the “dismantling of the ghettos of Europe,” Mendes-Flohr begins, “Jews are no longer only Jews. They have acquired multiple identities” (1). The author explores the cognitive consequences of the “cultural disjunctions” he believes are experienced by post-traditional Jews, who, he speculates, nurture sophisticated, plural ontologies that are especially conducive to the universalism and humanism of the Enlightenment. Mendes-Flohr proposes that for modernity’s Jews who have adopted the cultures of the societies in which they live, “the challenge is to define a Jewish identity that is engaging yet not exclusive” (10-11).
Mendes-Flohr expands Anglican bishop Kenneth Cragg’s “three Cs of religion” to explore the multi-faceted nature of Jewish identity in modernity; it can be seen as including not only creed, cult, and community, but also code, covenant, cuisine, and comedy. Unprotected by “a bounded cultural and linguistic space” (32), in a milieu where most of the “Cs” are questioned, he postulates, Jewish identity fragments. Mendes-Flohr suggests that his notion of the post-traditional Jew’s library is emblematic of secularization’s phenomenological and hermeneutical ramifications. He conjectures that “[s]ecular readers are continuously shuffling and reshelving their books, occasionally discarding some and placing others high out of reach, while making room for newly acquired books offering new and sometimes radically novel perspectives” (41). In contrast, he considers German Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig’s library, where sacred Jewish texts were purportedly placed on separate shelves from their mundane counterparts but located in the same room, implying that they were in dialogue with each other.
Mendes-Flohr describes Rosenzweig’s idea—built upon by Austrian-Israeli Jewish philosopher Martin Buber—that post-traditional Jewish spiritual life could be reinvigorated via the traditional communal study of Talmud Torah, but in a manner in which traditional texts are discussed in conversation with secular texts and concerns. Mendes-Flohr admits that such a project presents challenges for many moderns because Talmud Torah presumes traditional notions of God. This obstacle, Mendes-Flohr suggests, might be faced through an active dispelling of disbelief, the choice to engage in “dialogical faith” or a “second innocence” (64) that involves “listening with the heart” (65), as illustrated in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella The Little Prince.
Drawing on insights from select anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, and phenomenologists, Mendes-Flohr considers how to approach “post-traditional faith.” Considering disparate truth claims as arising from different ontological perspectives (rather than viewing them as epistemological challenges) can be useful to the post-traditional Jew attempting to honor plural cultural allegiances. Mendes-Flohr applies French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s metaphor of rhizomes to conceptualize varied ontological perspectives as existing in a noncompetitive, nonhierarchical manner.
Some Jewish thinkers confronting modernity have attempted to define Jewish identity sans theism, grounding Jewishness in peoplehood, “shared historical destiny” (14), or even “negative pride” in the face of anti-Semitism and genocide, but Mendes-Flohr finds none of these “belonging without believing” solutions satisfactory. For example, he critiques early-20th century American Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s Jewish Reconstructionism—which promoted Judaic ritual and community while dismissing the supernatural—as being too tied to the American liberal tradition to be applicable to the state of Israel. Where Kaplan’s Reconstructionism drew upon liberal values instead of God, Mendes-Flohr fears that godless Jewishness in Israel is instead wedded to an unbridled religious nationalism. He disparages Kaplanian Reconstructionism as being too reflective of the civic values of the society in which its members reside, thus failing to offer a counter to the immorality of “secular ambitions and mundane aspirations” (93). Instead, he contends, we need to nurture a “sacred discontent” that promotes social critiques such as those offered in the biblical prophetic tradition. He then concedes that “sacred discontent … presupposes the very conception of God that Mordecai Kaplan sought to revise” (98), i.e. deistic revelation that is deemed intellectually untenable by many post-traditional Jews. As with his consideration of Talmud Torah (discussed above), Mendes-Flohr simultaneously promotes theist solutions and worries that those remedies are inconsonant with modern Jewish sensibilities.
Where Mendes-Flohr is most unambivalent (and eloquent) is in his stance on Israel’s occupied territories. An American-born Israeli, Mendes-Flohr frequently raises strong critiques of Zionist ethnic nationalism which, he argues, is too often employed to dismiss concerns for the well-being of Palestinians. He maintains that Israel’s conduct towards Palestinians is contrary to traditional Jewish teachings. Just as Buber suggested the treatment of Jews in Europe constituted a moral evaluation of Christianity, Mendes-Flohr asserts that “the Arab Question of Palestine is a test of the ethical and religious integrity of Jewry” (84).
Mendes-Flohr’s application of historical-philosophical positions to “post-traditional Jewish” identity everywhere elides distinctions of varied decades and societies. Are the personal libraries of modern Jews the same across the globe and consistent through time? Do the differences not matter? Mendes-Flohr’s focus on turn-of-the-20st-century thought also leads him to neglect more recent approaches, such as turn-of-the-21st-century Jewish Reconstructionism that has incorporated mysticism and draws upon the prophetic tradition to call for social justice, or recently proposed expansions of Jewish identity far different from the older examples of “belonging without believing” that Mendes-Flohr dismisses (e.g., Rachel B. Gross, Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia and Religious Practice, New York University Press, 2021). Many contemporary academics demonstrate the possibility of avoiding these shortcomings. See, for example, Ayala Fader’s work on ultra-Orthodox Jews leading “double-lives,” Emily Sigalow’s examination of Jewish Buddhists, or investigations of Jewish identity in interfaith families from such researchers as Samira K. Mehta and Jennifer A. Thompson. These scholars explore multiplicity in modern Jewish identification via the narratives of everyday identifiers within specific socio-historical contexts.
Replete with metaphors from literature, philosophy, and poetry, Mendes-Flohr applies reflections from important thinkers of the past to a consideration of post-traditional Jewish identities. The book is likely to appeal more to theorists than empiricists.
C. Lynn Carr is professor of sociology at Seton Hall University.
C. Lynn Carr
Date Of Review:
October 31, 2022
Paul Mendes-Flohr is the Dorothy Grant Maclear professor emeritus of Modern Jewish History and Thought in the Divinity School and associate faculty in the Department of History at the University of Chicago, as well as professor emeritus of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of many books, including Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent, and he is the coeditor of The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History.
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